WHO KILLED PATRICE LUMUMBA?

Wall Street Journal on April 3, 2015, published a review of Emmanuel Gerad’s and Bruce Kuklick’s book Death in the Congo, Harvard, 276 pages. Africa’s post-independence landscape is littered with thwarted hopes.

On the shoulders of an emergent generation of African leaders countless aspirations rested, only to be denied in the months and years following European colonial retreat. Nowhere in Africa did the forces of neocolonialism, the Cold War, local politics and the United Nations coalesce to shatter independence reveries so brutally as in the former Belgian Congo. Excerpts below:

At the center of this drama stood, for a brief time, Patrice Lumumba. Taking office in June 1960, he lasted but 12 weeks as his new nation’s first democratically elected prime minister before being deposed in a coup, then killed four months later.

Only a few facts about his end are known for certain. On Jan. 17, 1961, Lumumba and his political allies, Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito, were driven in darkness to a remote village in Katanga, a mineral-rich province that had seceded only weeks after Lumumba’s inauguration, prompting a panicked Belgium to send peacekeeping troops to protect its interests. In the village an African firing squad awaited the men. Two Belgian police officials gave the orders to shoot. Gunned down, the bodies of Lumumba, Mpolo and Okito were rolled into a shallow ditch thick with the rainy season’s red earth.

But the specter of discovery haunted those with blood on their hands. The bodies…were soon disinterred and buried again near the border of Rhodesia. Eventually the rotting corpses were again unearthed, this time to be hacked to pieces and dissolved in sulfuric acid. The bits that remained were put to flame.

Sorting through Lumumba’s ashes and those of the postcolonial Congo has been the subjects of intense and fraught debate. Over a decade ago, the Belgian writer Ludo De Witte dropped a bombshell with his book, The Assassination of Lumumba. Indicting towering figures in the international community, he left few unscathed—including the former secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, whom he accused of supporting Belgium’s neocolonial interests and playing a decisive role in the overthrow of Lumumba. Mr. De Witte’s demonstration of Belgium’s complicity in Lumumba’s fate prompted a parliamentary inquiry in Brussels, with a subsequent official apology.

In Death in the Congo: Murdering Patrice Lumumba, Emmanuel Gerard and Bruce Kuklick open a wide aperture onto one of the most charged historical whodunits of the 20th century…it lays bare the entangled international actors that conspired to seal Lumumba’s fate and that of the independent Congolese nation: Belgium and its King Baudouin, whose predecessor Leopold II had established one of the most violent and exploitative colonial regimes in the Congo in the late 1800s; the Eisenhower administration, which was worried about Lumumba’s communist leanings; Hammarskjöld and the U.N.; and an array of anti-Lumumba Congolese politicians.

Drawing on an array of archival sources, Messrs. Gerard and Kuklick examine Lumumba’s assassination as a process—often disorganized and duplicative—rather than an event.

Messrs. Gerard and Kuklick are at their historical best when assessing the international interests that attempted to emasculate the Congo’s prime minister and weaken him into compliance with the West. When such tactics failed, whispers of elimination in the corridors of Brussels and Washington morphed into direct orders.

At issue was Belgian pride, Cold War politics and the hubris of the United Nations. The mandarins in Brussels, outraged at the affront to their nation’s king, scarcely imagined letting go of the Congo and its mineral wealth.

Lumumba had to go. In a decisive National Security Council meeting, according to one source, Eisenhower gave “an order for the assassination of Lumumba. There was no discussion; the meeting simply moved on.

Messrs. Gerard and Kuklick’s “joint accountability” assessment extends to the U.N. The much-beloved Hammarskjöld is taken to task equally for his duplicity and ambiguous Congolese policies. The authors ably demonstrate how, when push came to shove, the secretary-general backed Lumumba’s Congolese usurper and was as complicit in the prime minister’s assassination as were his American and Belgian counterparts.

Death in the Congo is a riveting account, though at times its worm’s-eye perspective undermines the analytic drama. Written in an old-school style of diplomatic history, the book largely overlooks the larger, l ongue durée issues that plagued Congo both before and after independence. Death in the Congo [also] fails to situate fully the events leading up to the assassination in historical perspective. Moreover, the authors’ understandings of race and colonial and postcolonial violence oscillate between naïve and offensive.

Ultimately, Lumumba’s torturous fate was not unlike tens of thousands of others in Belgium’s one-time colony. The Congo was a nation birthed from a cauldron of neglect, violence and exploitation of the highest order.

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